Editorial: Some drug dealers are wearing white coats

Editorial Board • Jan 3, 2020 at 8:00 PM

To become a physician in the U.S. you must earn a four-year undergraduate degree, spend four more years in medical school, and then complete three to seven years of residency. If you begin as a high school graduate at age 18, generally you’ll begin your private practice at around age 31.

With such an investment of time and money, it seems beyond comprehension that physicians would choose to throw it all away by becoming a drug dealer. But doctors continue to be sentenced to prison for their part in the nationwide opioid epidemic.

As we reported, a Norton doctor, Raymond M. Moore, destroyed his medical career and faces up to 80 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines for pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Abingdon to 14 charges related to illegal prescription of opioids. According to federal prosecutors, Moore illegally prescribed more than 52,000 oxycodone, hydrocodone and benzodiazepine pills and also faced charges of obtaining drugs by fraud; health care fraud; making a false statement to law enforcement; and failure to maintain proper records. He’s free on bond pending sentencing in March.

Moore is 61, but another doctor sentenced in Abingdon federal court in October, Joel Smithers, is just 36, hardly into his practice. He took in roughly $700,000 by illegally prescribing more than half a million opioid pills and contributing to an epidemic of abuse that reached far beyond the small town of Martinsville, Virginia. He got 40 years in prison.

To get drugs from Smithers, many patients traveled hundreds of miles, waited as long as 12 hours, and slept in the parking lot of his office, prosecutors said. In one case, the jury found the opioids Smithers prescribed to a West Virginia woman caused her death.

More than 700,000 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and of those deaths, nearly 68 percent involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Last September, 11 physicians were charged with illegally dispensing opioids through so-called pill mills in the second coordinated law enforcement crackdown in the Appalachian area.

It was the second crackdown by the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) strike force, which resulted in charges in three states for the overprescription of controlled substances that totaled more than 17 million pills.

Last April, the strike force arrested 53 medical professionals including 32 from Tennessee for the illegal distribution of more than 23 million pills. In what was described as the largest ever prescription opioid law enforcement operation, charges were brought against 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals for their alleged participation in the illegal prescribing and distribution of opioids and other drugs, according to a Justice Department announcement.

Among the doctors charged was a physician who owned a Vienna, West Virginia-based pain and rehab center. Officials said that from May 2017 to May 2019, this doctor, who had 1,600 patients in a town of approximately 10,000 residents, allegedly prescribed approximately 1.8 million units of controlled substances including over 600 prescriptions for fentanyl, one of the most powerful opioids. Some of those fentanyl prescriptions went to a 35-year-old patient from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who fatally overdosed shortly after filling a prescription from the doctor.

The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region said one official.

We don’t expect drug dealers to be wearing white coats, but society cannot stand by and allow the harmful and oftentimes deadly practice of over-prescribing highly addictive drugs to continue unchecked. Medical personnel who misuse their positions of trust for personal financial gain are to be held accountable, and the ARPO task force is seeing to it.

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